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A sustainable bargain

There’s no point in treating consumers as guinea pigs merely for a desire to be seen as socially responsible, writes Suhel Seth.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2009 22:38 IST
Suhel Seth

The air is fresh with thoughts of a cleaner world as heads of State assemble in Copenhagen. In a world being buffeted by the price of oil, where the Al Gore form of intellectual activism has been recognised as a potent tool to influence and catalyse, the next blue mountain that corporations will have to climb will be to make ‘green’ a marketable phenomenon.

The world has witnessed enough debate on carbon emissions and carbon credit. While trading has begun, there is a fundamental disconnect between the consumer and the environment. The consumer is made to feel guilty, with no mechanism to transform that guilt into an incentive for a purposeful engagement between him/her and the environment.

Being a traveller for years, I’ve noticed a desire in certain hotels to be seen as responsible eco-players, which often means exhorting guests to re-use towels and bed-sheets to save the environment. This creates two fundamental disconnects: one, that the consumer likes to use fresh towels and bed-sheets, which is why he/she likes hotels compared to their own homes; and second, the consumer always believes this is the hotel’s way of saving money, through the transference of guilt.

But there’s no point in treating consumers as guinea pigs merely for a desire to be seen as socially responsible. The engagement that brands follow with consumers today is more instructive in nature, telling them what to do in order to be more eco-conscious; they don’t create a partnership that offers greater benefits than mere guilt-alleviation. So, as a strategic approach for all companies that want serious engagement and tangible results from their consumers/stakeholders, here are few suggestions:

n Companies need to translate carbon credits into tangible consumer benefits. The drivers of this transformation are: emotional (alleviation of guilt), and what a hotel can actually do, like offering ‘green’ rooms, in which everything is geared towards the environment, be it larger windows that allow in natural light to minimise energy use, to the kind of fabric used for bed-sheets or towels, or the manner in which water is conserved, to everything in the room being recyclable. Once a guest asks for a ‘green’ room, his incentives are also defined differently, like getting more loyalty points. There could be a tie-up between other green projects and brands, creating a green alliance of brands, apart from creating a cluster of ‘Greenies’, those who believe and practise the concept.

n We should create a global carbon/eco passport. This will allow a collection of eco-conscious brands, across categories, to offer a level of stature to its holder — perhaps even paving the way for a green credit card that will offer greater savings on eco-friendly brands. This fundamental principle of incentives and rewards can be applied across businesses and geographies. This way, the consumer doesn’t just buy into the emotional benefits of going green but also gets tangible, rational benefits.

The problem with most corporations today is that their entire corporate social responsibility is targeted at getting better scores in reputation studies. There’s a need to alter the mindset from guilt to engagement; from something emotional to something that is also rational, for an engagement that is profitable for the brand, consumer and all humanity.

Suhel Seth is Managing Partner of Counselage.

The views expressed by the author are personal.